Three Iranian men are waiting to hear whether a court will uphold their sentence to 80 lashes for taking communion wine. Their appeal decision is expected within 20 days. Release International is calling on the Iranian authorities to overturn the sentence.

Yaser Mosibzadeh, Saheb Fadayee and Mohammad Reza Omidi were arrested at their house church in Rasht on May 13 2016 as they were celebrating communion.

They were charged with consuming alcohol and were sentenced in September to receive 80 lashes each for drinking communion wine. It’s believed Mohammed Reza was also whipped in 2012 for taking communion.

The three were arrested along with their pastor Yousef Nadarkhani. All four have also been charged with acting against national security. They went to appeal over the flogging sentence on February 9. The judge is to deliver his verdict within 20 days.

‘How can it be right to be whipped for taking communion wine?’ asks Paul Robinson, the chief executive of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.

‘The right thing to do would be to overturn this unjust sentence. Release hopes this will pave the way for long-awaited religious freedom in Iran.’

The men are all converts from Muslim backgrounds. Drinking alcohol is not illegal for Christians in Iran, but is forbidden for Muslims. The sentence reflects the state’s hard-line refusal to recognise the right of Muslims to change their religion.

‘These charges reflect the state position that once a Muslim, always a Muslim,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘Behind this case is the denial of that most fundamental right – the right to choose your own religion without state interference.’

Two Christian converts have gone on hunger strike inside Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Amin Nader Afshar and Hadi Askary are protesting that they have not received a fair trail or been given adequate medical attention. Hadi is reported to have an untreated kidney infection.

They were arrested last August, at a picnic in Firuzkuh, but have yet to be charged, despite weeks of interrogation. Three other men arrested with them were released after posting substantial bail.

Iran stepped up its crackdown on Christian activists in 2015. Around 90 prisoners are now in jail for their faith. Many have been beaten and abused. Some have been threatened with death. Iranian officials often target evangelical house groups.

Repression against the church increased in 2010 when Ayatollah Khamenei branded house churches a threat to national security. Christians are often accused of ‘undermining national security’.

Freedom for all faiths other than Shia Islam is limited, despite constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. Evangelising Muslims is illegal and the official penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam) is death, although the sentence has rarely been carried out.

Yet the church in Iran continues to grow despite being under constant pressure.

Christians make up just half of one per cent of the population. Most are discriminated against in education, employment and property ownership.

Many of Iran’s Christians are ethnic Armenian or Assyrian. To limit the spread of the faith, many of their churches have been closed or restricted to conducting services in the Armenian or Assyrian languages. This has driven many congregations underground.

Most Christians in Iran now meet in private homes. Prominent figures such as pastors may come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many are forced out of the country.

Christians from a Muslim background pay a particularly high price. A number of Iranian Christians who were raised as Muslims remain in detention. Some suffer beatings from prison staff and other inmates.

According to Middle East Concern, Mohammed Reza was previously given 80 lashes for taking communion wine. They report he was one of four believers from a Muslim background who was whipped for the same charge in 2012.

‘Would we be willing to face the lash – repeatedly – for taking communion?’ asks Paul Robinson of Release. ‘These believers are holding fast to their faith and are paying a price. They are a challenge to us all.’

Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.